"Samuel Beckett", 1976. © Jane Bown
Courtesy of Soda Pictures
Looking for Light: Jane Bown
Dir: Luke Dodd and Michael Whyte
UK release date | 25 April 2014
A Soda Pictures release
Running time | 90 minutes
Certificate | 15
Special Preview with Q&A with directors Luke Dodd and Michael Whyte, hosted by Brett Rogers, director of the Photographers' Gallery @ ICA = 22 April
Paris, 1992. I took a crash course on B&W photography for beginners. HP5, Tri X 400, D76, aperture, speed, lens, composition, click. Bringing up the grain (or not), dodging the light on the enlarger, rubbing the paper into the developer. Among the many things one learns and has to remember constantly when about to shoot is the political aspect of a photograph. How to position your subject in a frame according to a specific light (if using natural light like I did always), but how the photographer positions itself with his sitter. “Are you above, straight face to face or “kneeling down”?
After WWII, Jane Bown studied photography in Guildford School of Art and sent a picture of a cow's eye close-up shot to The Observer picture editor. In 1949, she got a call from the editor and the petite lady was sent to photograph Nobel Prize philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Luke Dodd and Michael Whyte’s film/documentary celebrates Jane’s six decades love story with UK oldest newspaper but also focuses on her unknown private life.
Born on the wrong side of the blanket in 1925, Jane was set to be adopted but was instead taken care of by a succession of middle class aunts.
Looking For Light: Jane Bown mixes interviews with Jane, her colleagues at The Observer Don McCullin, Nobby Clark, Lynn Barber; her son Hugo Moss, fellow photographers such as Rankin, sitter such as Richard Ashcroft (The Verve) and so on.
The story unveils Jane’s determination to work in the male dominated world of photography without a constant trail of dithyramb from the participants of the film (apart from Rankin... perhaps admitting his own mediocrity). If McCullin appears a bit harsh, it is not out of respect for her but gives rather an idea on how she regarded photography... which eventually Jane would admit later in the documentary that it was perhaps more important than being a mother or a grandmother. Photography was her family. For God’s sake, she carried a shopping bag full of SLR cameras and 35 mm when on a shoot. However, one of the best compliments comes from Edna O’Brien “She was very clever at being nobody”. This is precisely the secret in photography: how to extract the essence of someone or something by being invisible.
While we are listening to the in-depth interviews, we learn about the difficult relationship between Public School boys of the Observer editorial room and their photographers; Jane on Bjork “She has a strange sense of dressing”; Jane not knowing PJ Harvey, going to her gig in 1995 and asked PJ if she could join the road (Jane’s gypsy side); Nobby Clark on how Diane Arbus didn’t like people she photographed and how Jane cared for her sitters... interviews punctuated with moments of total silence when a catwalk of Jane’s photos “interferes”. Intense B&W moments observing the light that illuminates her subjects, captures their souls. A pure enjoyable meditation on light. A technique imbedded in British history of photography.
Whether photographing Dennis Hooper or Margaret Thatcher, Jane Bown falls in love with her sitter, transcending who they are as persons into semi-gods. What strikes me all along however is her choice to position herself, very often, above her characters as if despite her petite size, she wanted to elevate herself and dominates the situation. Perhaps, this is the result of someone who grew up being told to be quiet and found a home within photography, a refuge into the darkroom, where she emancipated... she looked for a light through a tiny hole. This is what the film is about... a search for perfect natural light! No props.
"Bjork", 1995 © Jane Bown
Courtesy of Soda Pictures
In the film, appear photographs of a Gypsy child, Spike Lee, Francis Bacon, Sinead O’Connor, Samuel Beckett, an attendant in Earl’s Court, Bjork, Queen Elizabeth II (for her 80th birthday), Richard Harris, John Bentjeman, Rudolf Nureyev, Eartha Kitt, Winston Churchill, Jayne Mansfield, Jean Cocteau, Michael Caine, Lucian Freud, homeless people, Simone Signoret, Desmond Tutu, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Bridget Riley, Jessye Norman, Jean-Michel Jarre & Charlotte Rampling, Bono, a dockworker, Vivienne Westwood, Keith Richards, Lisa Minnelli, and the list goes on.
22 December: Jane Bown, photographer, (13 March 1925 - 21 December 2014) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/21/jane-bown
More pix on FB = https://www.facebook.com/babylondon.orbital